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Study Finds Neglect of Humanities at State Level

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Little Rock, Ark--Preoccupied with improving mathematics and science instruction and generally improving schools, few states are promoting instruction in the humanities--and, in fact, there appears to be little agreement among state and local school officials on what "the humanities" are, according to a new survey of state education departments.

The survey, based on a questionnaire distributed in December 1982, was conducted by the Council of Chief State School Officers at the request of the National Endowment for the Humanities and released by the council at its meeting here last month. The study was supported in part by the Rockefeller Foundation.

The study, intended to review "current state policy and activities" in the humanities, found that only 21 percent of the states have guidelines for instruction in the humanities and that while half of the states have adopted a "competency-based education program," only eight have included the humanities in their competency-based programs.

"We kept hearing that no one was in sufficient agreement on a definition of 'the humanities' for curriculum people to begin putting materials together," said Hilda L. Smith, staff director of the study. To guide respondents, the questionnaire described the humanities "in broad outline [and] at their most basic" as: "the study of languages, literature, history, philosophy, musicology, and art history and criticism."

Many states reported that groups concerned with the humanities--such as professional associations and teachers' organizations--often do not communicate with each other, Ms. Smith added. "They never get together to talk about common problems," she said. State officials also reported that the humanities lack popular support because they are commonly viewed by the public as "elitist."

The council's study was headed by Harold Raynolds Jr., commissioner of education in Alaska and a member of the Rockefeller Commission on the Humanities, which issued a widely publicized 1981 report, "The Humanities in American Life."

The ccsso study supports the Rockefeller commission's conclusion that improving humanities teaching in the public schools is the single most important task in raising the general level of understanding of the humanities in America.

Half the state officials in the survey said the "back-to-basics" movement of recent years has had a "negative" effect on humanities instruction; 21 percent said it has had a "neutral" effect; and 32 percent said it has had a "positive" effect. Forty-three percent said "teach-ing for standardized testing" has had a negative effect on the humanities, while 46 percent said the effect has been neutral, and 13 percent said the effect has been positive.

The figures total more than 100 percent because of "rounding and double answers," the report said.

But the state education officials said humanities instruction has been helped by the growth in the number of course offerings over the past decade and particularly by the recent increase in the number of programs for gifted and talented students.

The council recommends in its study that each state develop a specific set of policies to further humanities instruction and that each state encourage the establishment of a "core of common learning" in which the humanities are central.

Alluding to the current interest of educators and policymakers in mathematics and science education, William F. Pierce, the council's executive director, writes in a foreword: "We hope the report will remind those who are struggling to reform the schools that the humanities cannot, indeed must not, be either ignored or diminished if students are to be as educated, and, therefore, as wise as possible."

neh and the Rockefeller Foundation will sponsor a three-day meeting on the humanities next April in California. Its goal, the council says, is to explore ways in which the states can promote the humanities in schools.

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